After Bangladesh Factory Collapse, Bleak Struggle for Survivors
By JIM YARDLEY
SAVAR, Bangladesh — Inside the single room he shares with his wife and young child, Hasan Mahmud Forkan does not sleep easily. Some nights he hears the screams of the garment workers he tried to rescue from the wreckage of the Rana Plaza factory building. Or he dreams the bed itself is collapsing, sucking him down into a bottomless void.
A few miles away, at a rehabilitation center for the disabled, Rehana Khatun is learning to walk again. She lost both legs in the Rana Plaza collapse and worries that she is not improving because her prosthetic replacements are bulky and uncomfortable. She is only 20 and once hoped to save money so she could return to her village and pay for her own wedding.
“No, I don’t have that dream anymore,” she said, with a cold pragmatism more than self-pity. “How can I take care of a family?”
Eight months ago, the collapse of Rana Plaza became the deadliest disaster in the history of the garment industry, and many of the survivors still face an uncertain future. The shoddily constructed building pancaked down onto workers stitching clothes for global brands like Children’s Place, Benetton, C & A, Primark and many others. Workers earning as little as $38 a month were crushed under tons of falling concrete and steel. More than 1,100 people died and many others were injured or maimed.
But while the Rana Plaza disaster stirred an international outcry — and shamed many international clothing companies into pledging to help finance safety improvements in other Bangladeshi factories — the people most directly affected are still living without any guarantees of help or financial compensation.
Families who lost the wages of a son or daughter, husband or wife, are struggling.
Those who lost limbs, like Ms. Khatun, are uncertain if they will ever walk or hold things again. And many volunteer rescuers like Mr. Forkan and survivors are struggling to deal with debilitating emotional scars.
Today, Rana Plaza no longer exists. It is a gaping hole in a busy commercial street, mostly cleared of rubble, where rainwater has pooled into a small black lake. But the vacant space still exerts the potency of memory and loss. Banners demanding justice face the street. Sit-ins or small protests are sometimes held. Leftist parties have built a crude statue of a hammer and sickle.
There are also people, often hovering near the periphery, clutching official documents, proof of their loss, evidence of their claims for compensation. In a poor country like Bangladesh, a job in a garment factory, despite the low wages, is a financial toehold for many families. A daughter is sent to work to support her parents, or to pay to school her siblings.
Now it is the parents or siblings who come to the Rana Plaza site, trying to get attention and, they hope, financial assistance.
“We are a poor family,” said Monju Ara, 40, whose daughter Smriti, 17, died while working on the third floor of Rana Plaza. “That is why my daughter had to start work. Her wages helped us educate our younger children. Now we had to stop educating them.”
Ms. Monju Ara stood in a dirt alleyway beside the Rana Plaza site on a recent afternoon, as others soon appeared. One girl, Rahima, 9, was still carrying a “missing” poster for her brother. Another child, Smriti Mahmuda, 7, had lost her father, and her 15-year-old brother had taken a job in an embroidery factory to support the family. A rickshaw driver with the single name of Alauddin, 43, is now struggling to support his young daughter after his wife died in Rana Plaza.
“They always say I will get compensation,” he said, “but they don’t say when.”
Compensation remains a complicated and contested issue. Bangladesh’s government has made some modest short-term compensation payments to some victims. Families were given a one-time payment of $257 when they collected the body of a relative in the days after the collapse, and the government has established annuities for survivors who lost limbs — Ms. Khatun gets about $206 a month in interest, more than most others.